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Fullerton police sued over wrongful 2010 arrest

August 19, 2011 |  4:39 pm

Fullerton police chief Michael Sellers Michael Sellers, the embattled Fullerton police chief currently on leave, and several of his officers have been named in a civil suit to be filed Friday seeking unspecified damages over the wrongful 2010 arrest of a Baldwin Park man.

The city's Police Department acknowledged Wednesday that it mistakenly arrested Veth Mam on suspicion of attacking a police officer in October. An Orange County jury found Mam not guilty last month of assault, battery and resisting arrest.

In addition to Sellers, Officers Kenton Hampton, Frank Nguyen, Jonathan Miller and Daniel Solorio are listed as defendants.

Fullerton’s acting chief, Kevin Hamilton, has ordered an internal investigation into how the mistake occurred.

The investigation and lawsuit come as multiple inquiries are underway into a deadly encounter July 7 between six Fullerton police officers and Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia.

Sellers took medical leave last week following calls for his resignation by two City Council members and members of the public.

Fullerton Police Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said the department received a copy of the suit Friday but is not prepared to comment on it.

At a news conference Friday morning, Mam said the incident has left a lasting emotional impact. “He doesn’t go out anymore,” said attorney Garo Mardirossian, who is also representing the Thomas family in a separate suit he plans to file. “He’s afraid of being harassed by police.”

Mam, 35, said he was walking to his car after 2 a.m. when he saw a friend, Sokha Leng, being arrested by Fullerton police. He said he thought Leng was being mistreated and began recording the arrest with his iPhone.

On the video, Hampton can be seen knocking the phone out of Mam’s hand. Another man picked up the phone and kept recording. The footage shows Mam being wrestled to the ground by officers and placed in handcuffs.

In a police report, Nguyen wrote that Mam jumped on another officer's back and choked him. Nguyen alleged that he pulled Mam off the officer's back and pushed him away. The officer claimed that Mam continued to approach the officers, who arrested him.

During the trial, Nguyen and other officers repeated their version of events to the jury. Goodrich told The Times this week that the officers did not lie about the events, adding that there was another man -- not Mam -- who did jump on an officer's back. But the officers erroneously believed Mam was that attacker, Goodrich said.


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Photo: Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times